Make Microsoft pay for bugs and BSODs – Sun's Gage
Sun's chief scientist John Gage was a hit with Register readers the last time we spoke, two years ago with his prediction that computers could eventually disturb the heat balance of the universe. (That was before the Pentium4 was released, and he's right on target).
But Gage is a rare man in the technical community, as the former RFK delegate doesn't cleave to the reflexive libertarianism of many IT leaders. So at JavaOne this week, we talked about the entertainment industry's Taliban assault on computing, why the bubble economy burst, Big Media, and Microsoft.
Gage shares the fury that the entertainment industry is seeking mandate computers with share denial technology. "Surviving Jack Valenti" is one of the biggest challenges American faces he told us.
"Valenti's defence of the Hollings Act is that the strength of our content is what drives the world economy.
"Our view is that the creativity enabled by what Apple calls Rip Mix and Burn is far greater than what the existing structure film and music industries have created. There's a flowering of creativity, and the rivers will overwhelm the banks. When that happens it's inevitable that there'll be new fertilization and it will yield new civilizations.
"You in the copyright industry have ignored this simplest of technology warnings: you're been reaping the effects of sleeping and indulgence," he says.
Gage warmed to the term "share denial" - contributed by a Reg reader after we appealed for more faithful description of "Digital Rights Management".
"I like that. 'Piracy' is another term that shouldn't be used. It's like the abortion and race debates, where words are purposefully loaded.
It was refreshing, we ventured, to hear die-hard libertarians such as John Perry Barlow calling for government intervention to protect freedoms. Clearly the market, left to its own devices, couldn't be trusted. We related Scott McNealy's startling answer to one of our questions at a recent Sun Editors Day. "Each company thought they could be a monopoly," referring the US cellular carriers. "Each thought they could win. They all made a run for it and they're all going to lose out."
"There was a belief that the market would solve everything. And so we chose six different wireless standards; six different antennae deployments, and that's six times the capital. And every town determines where the antennae will go. After you've put an antenna on every church, every synagogue and every mosque, well, what do you have left?
"So we have a inadequate infrastructure brought about by a government failure to establish requirements and the higher level goals. We wanted a ubiquitous communication infrastructure with security, that could be built cheaply. They failed and let the market decide it. Now where I live in Berkeley Sprint couldn't get permission to build the antenna, so reception is poor out there.
Did McNealy's answer signal a sea change in tech's attitude to the Gubment?
"It's a maturation. We are embedded in a society based on a series of ways to ease inevitable conflicts. The US litigation system is one way, it has problems. But the tech industry believed they operated outside of any set of rules because they could create anything they wanted, whereas in practice there are many interests that must be satisfied
"Systems evolve. If you yield to intafada - when you hear a Palestinian mother say that she's happy to see daughter martyr herself - that's a voice of desperation with no other way of expression.
"The accumulation of power produces ill behavior - you've seen how Microsoft can lie with impunity with no fear of accountability or liability. That's what's in practice now.
Taming the Beast
But the libertarian rhetoric that all will right itself, given unfettered markets, had some powerful champions in the nineties, such as Gilder -
"Always beware of true believers. One of my favourite writers is Stanley Fish, a wonderful author, and he has a saying that "there's no such thing as Free Speech and a good thing too. What he means is that all speech is in context and the speech itself has little meaning.
"The institutional environment in which we produce speech is a good one - but to declare that we can say anything misunderstands the principle. It's back to sans juste - logic justifies all crimes. When Scott talks about 'mankind' it's interesting, because it's odd to hear a libertarian say that. Mankind is not a libertarian concept."
So personally, what should be done about Microsoft?
"The DoJ gave up its judicious responsiblities in a scandalous way. By any shift, Microsoft has been a criminal company. It's unclear to anyone whether a breakup would accomplish the goal. It's worse because of [Microsoft's] lack of moral and ethical character. It's achived success but not one based on consumers' love of their software - it's because of network tipping phenomena. They made WordPerfect appear to be defective by changing the underlying OS. That's why they were nailed.
"Scott has maintained, and I defer to his judgement, that we need the courts for this. Not for everything, but to ensure accessibility, to expose the interior architecture, to force some openness. That's the role of the courts. But the hard part here is that it's an institution that is effective, that can pursue uniform societal goals, that allows innovation to occur.
"I'd suggest that a simple accounting rule change coule help. If every minute wasted by customers using Microsoft software was billed back to Microsoft, if The Register asked its readers to tally that, and they emailed you every day because a Microsoft device crashed, that rising thermometer of cost would produce a very large number!
"That's simply mediocrity that costs users time.
"We learned a little about socializing costs - but I want to desocialize the costs, and liability in terms of software is a good place to start.
After the Bubble Economy
The leftish economist Robert Brenner noted that each recovery from recession since 1972 has been weaker than the last. Was Gage, or Sun, worried that we might just be sated by technology? Could the West become another Japan?
"Penetration is still far short of what it could be. If Korea and Finland are approaching 100pc in terms of people with access to wireless technology, then the United States lags far behind," he says.
We were thinking more along the lines that productivity gains by technology investment have diminishing returns. Japan is a consumer market that can't be revived even with zero per cent interest rates, which is a kind of electric shock treatement. And it isn't working.
"Well in Japan the accounting systems were flawed. They are everywhere. If you look at the hidden expenses and environmental components - clean air and water are taken but not paid for - these are overlooked costs.
"And the Japanese economy is a wonderful example of that. Bad loans were kept off the books, and that's what's dragging down Japanese economy . These hidden relationships are forbidden in US law. Accounting systems are unsexy, but they are important. Look at Enron - if ever there's proof of that.
So who was to blame for the Bubble?
"We were giving money to ten year olds. They may have been in their twenties or thirties, really, but they were behaving like ten year olds and mother was no longer watching.
But who gave them the money, no - who threw money at them? Don't the capitalists share some blame?
"I'm not sure how closely they were watching. Look at how primates cluster - look at how a baboon troop gets worked up - you want to stay out of the way!
"Essentially we had a small community and greed took over. People reinforced each others sense of proportion. You know in sociology, and studies prove this, that when people assess levels of risk they'll be off by a level of a thousand.
"So yes, you can blame the investment community, and the analysts. The signs were there but people didn't want to look. Then add in this MSNBC cheerleading media infrastructure, and you've got a recipe for disaster."
Gage is still a registered Democrat. But wasn't he at all tempted by the Nader campaign at all, which was an outside coalition much likes the Bobby Kennedys?
"I don't think we Americans are a political people. The difference between the parties is laughable, when you look at what separates George W Bush from Al Gore.
"As a nation, and actually at Sun too, we are moving from the Greek brilliance of creation to the Roman and British brilliance of administration.
"If we had proportional respresentation administered in a good way - and if we had the Australian mandate to vote, where you must vote, then the party machinery vanishes. You change the structure of discourse.
But the right has got away with the Big Lie, in a way that the left gave up trying to counter? Lies would still work…
"Yes the way the media instutionalised bias is interesting. The overtly conservative publications - The Washington Times, the Fox TV network - have shifted dialog so far that reputable publications such as the New York Times are portrayed as left-learning liberals by their own professional and ethical constraints. It's reported the accusations - attempting to be even-handed, and so the very conservative press managed to skew the democratic dialog in a way that's very unhealthy."®
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